By: Haleigh Francis
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Recently-elected D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser has a vision. She plans to instigate the elimination of homelessness in the District, and to totally eradicate it by 2025.
However, the rate of homelessness is growing in D.C. This winter, there were around 4,000 individuals in emergency shelters on a weekly basis. The national rate of homelessness is going down, however in our nation’s capital, the numbers continue to rise. Between 2013 and 2014, the rate of homelessness in D.C. rose by 13 percent.
Bowser’s task is a daunting one. What complicates the issue even more is the fact that many of these homeless individuals are neither fully grown, or living on their own – homeless families, often headed by young women, are struggling to not only survive, but stay together.
Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the D.C. Coalition For the Homeless, has seen firsthand the difficulty that young women burdened by poverty and homelessness go through, especially when they have a family to support. Many of these women in the 18-24 age range have never held a lease in their own name.
“When you start looking at the cause-and-effect relationships, more likely than not you’re going to find that the young woman became pregnant while she was in high school, or junior high school, and never completed high school,” Ferrell said.
This, he explained, places a heavy burden on them, and makes gaining housing for themselves and the families that they are responsible for even more difficult. In general, the notion of facing homelessness as a young person is extremely difficult.
Simply finding a place to stay even temporarily is a huge problem that disadvantaged youths faced. In 2013, a $700,000 cut to budgets funding homeless shelters for youths left many out on the streets. In a time when homeless families are getting increasingly younger, this becomes especially problematic.
“At this particular time, as I noted earlier, the age range for homeless families has gone down. And so that 18-24-year-old group is really important, because in many cases, these are young women who have not had a lease in their names,” Ferrell explained.
“They have always lived with someone else, whether that’s a parent, or a friend or a guardian, and so they’ve never been a lease holder.”
Making that step from never having had a home of their own to being a homeowner is not an easy transition. There are several organizations that exist to serve young people who are in the midst of such issues, including Covenant House, an advocacy organization and emergency shelter for youths aged 18-24 in Southeast D.C.
Quinzzy Pratt, coordinator of Safe Haven Emergency Housing (a part of the Covenant House program), says that the most important thing that other people can do for individuals this age who are facing homelessness is not making donations. Rather, spending time with these young people, talking with them and giving them guidance, is most crucial.
“To me, what’s more important is the volunteer work, the advocacy. And so, my goal or intention has been to connect them with other young people to provide good information, just be a positive person in their lives. So, aside from the technical ‘stuff’ you could give, whether it’s toiletry items, detergent… all that stuff is helpful, but what’s important to me is actually spending time with young people,” Pratt said.
Mentoring, Pratt believes, is the strongest and most helpful gift that can be given to the disadvantaged youths that Covenant House and other like organizations serve. Melvin Tibbs, a 19-year-old client of Covenant House, agreed with Pratt’s sentiment. Having slept on the streets on and off since he was 15 years old, Tibbs has known the trials of being a youth debilitated by not having somewhere to call home.
“I was sleeping outside, and I didn’t have no place to go. And people used to talk to me, and it made me better… They told me to do the right thing and be patient. Like, things are gonna happen if you work with it, you know? … You gotta go small to go big… You can give people all the money in the world, but what can that do? … Money can’t make me happy,” Tibbs said.
Covenant House has services for young mothers who come in needing to care for their children, as well.
Covenant House looks at homelessness among young people as symptomatic, not defining. Not having a place to live, in other words, does not have to label these youths homeless. Rather, ‘disconnected’ is how the organization describes its clientele, or ‘experiencing homelessness’.
“When you phrase it that way, it just becomes a chapter in the story of their lives, it’s not defining who they are as people,” Pam Lieber, Director of Outreach and Residential Services at Covenant House Washington, said.
“If I’m disconnected, I can be connected somewhere,” Lieber explained.
Lieber says that they’ve noticed spikes in instances of youths experiencing homelessness as members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to this, human trafficking has become a much more prominent part of the conversation as well.
“I think members of the LGBTQ community are always in increase… Also right now there’s a lot of talk and energy around human trafficking, and young people who have had to exchange sex for basic survival… Because of that, there’s a lot of trauma connected to it, so the work of getting yourself stable begins by addressing some of that trauma,” Lieber said.
The stigma surrounding young people experiencing homelessness is an issue as well. Those who are young may seem able to others, but it isn’t always that simple. A lot of different circumstances can complicate one’s ability to sustain themselves.
Lieber explained that a lot of people make the assumption of disadvantaged youths that:
“’You’re young and mobile and energetic, so why don’t you just go out and do something?’ And the reality is it’s not always that easy to do something. When you’ve dropped out of school and have an eighth grade education, you’re not going to be able to get a job.”
According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, there are two primary challenges to eradicating homelessness. These are a decrease in affordable housing and an increase in rent prices. These two issues make finding and securing housing extremely difficult for those who cannot afford to pay rent at the current cost in the area.
Homelessness among young people and young families in the D.C. area has everything to do with circumstance. Providing a temporary place to call home is a first step, but Lieber explained that it isn’t the ultimate solution to the problem.
“It’s not just giving them a home, it’s not just giving them a job, it’s really about kind of helping heal their soul, their heart, all of the things they went through that brought them here,” Lieber said.